On The Ground: YMCA Belarus

Joe Gill

Scheme: Aids education

Funding: £10,000

Objectives: Partnership with YMCA Scotland using peer group education to prevent further spread of the Aids epidemic in Belarus.

The rate of growth of HIV/Aids in the former Soviet state of Belarus is now as high as in Africa, warns YMCA Scotland's national general secretary Peter Crory. The poverty-stricken country's health services are struggling to cope, and the YMCA has stepped in with an anti-Aids education programme.

The concept of the voluntary sector, as well as western Christianity, was alien in the Soviet era, but since 1995 the YMCA has opened eight offices despite an uncooperative bureaucracy.

Last month, Sasha Artsiuschchanka, the general secretary of YMCA Belarus, came to Pitlochry during YMCA Scotland's national general assembly to receive a cheque for £4,000 to buy a mini-bus for the Belarus organisation.

The two national YMCAs have formed a partnership, with an annual £1,000 donation pledged from the Scottish organisation toward running costs for YMCA Belarus.

Artsiuschchanka, a former fighter-pilot, has not been deterred by the refusal of the Belarus authorities to recognise seven out of the eight YMCA offices in the country. They are all run from anonymous flats and have grown by word-of-mouth.

Youth services provision in Belarus is virtually non-existent, and the YMCA has found an enthusiastic interest from young people in its Aids message.

"Belarus has experienced a sorrowful and tragic history of wars and the Chernobyl disaster," said volunteer Michael Yankovsky. "Young people from Belarus YMCA understand clearly the dangers of Aids, and do not want Belarus to face yet another tragedy."

YMCA Belarus launched a scheme of 'equal teaches equal', where young people have an opportunity for open and unrestricted communication without adults.

Twenty young people aged 15 to 16 took part in training courses last year to become qualified 'multipliers'. They went on to hold sessions in schools and among groups of young people, using games, questionnaires, interviews and debates in order to communicate the safe-sex message.

The programme began in a small YMCA centre in the town of Lida in eastern Belarus, where the number of people with the virus - mostly under the age of 30 - was 112 in a population of 100,000.

Crory says links have now been formed between local YMCAs such as Aberdeen and Minsk. "We are trying to make a definite connection at a practical level to deliver the HIV initiative to countries most in need."

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